In terms of the big picture of Brexit, nothing has really changed since the post I wrote just before Christmas. The gist of it was that until political leaders face the truth about Brexit nothing will be done to address its failings, which also carries the danger of a revival for Farage or a similar populist politician.
It’s an analysis which was echoed by John Harris of the Guardian this week, who went on to predict that this year “the gap between Brexit’s delusions and our everyday reality will become increasingly inescapable” and that both main parties will face the same problem of the impossibility of thinking “coherently about the UK’s long-term prospects when any truthful discussion of the present is off limits”.
As to what those prospects are, the Financial Times annual survey (£) of leading economists finds a clear majority expecting the UK to face the worst and longest recession of any G7 country. Brexit figures strongly amongst the reasons, and is certainly the one most obviously unique to the UK. The report on the survey quotes Professor Diane Coyle of Cambridge University as saying “the UK is in a structural hole, not a cyclical recession” and will continue to suffer “unless some sanity returns to our trade relations with Europe [and] until we have a government with an adequately long-term strategy it can get through parliament”.
Needless to say, the Brexiter diehards have a different analysis. The ineffably foolish David Frost (£) is bemused that “somehow, we have allowed our exit from the EU to become defined as the problem not part of the solution to our problems”, as if it had happened by some strange chance, rather than the obvious failure of the Brexit project.
He shows a similar lack of insight in suggesting that part of the problem is “that we have a Remainer Chancellor: other countries’ financial establishments and investors take their cue about us from the views of the Chancellor and Treasury, and if they are not vigorous advocates of Brexit that makes a huge difference to international perceptions of us”.
He is apparently oblivious to the fact that the biggest damage to international investors’ perceptions of the UK occurred when Kwasi Kwarteng, a ‘vigorous advocate of Brexit’, delivered his ‘true Brexit’ mini-budget, which found much favour with Frost himself. Indeed the mini-budget wasn’t an anomaly but inseparable from the nature of the kind of post-Brexit Conservatism Frost champions, as the historian Robert Saunders argued in an excellent essay this week.
A post-Brexit consensus?
It's worth noting Frost’s description of Jeremy Hunt as a “Remainer Chancellor". In a similar way, Jacob Rees-Mogg this week (£) railed against “unelected remainers in the House of Lords” (as unelected as Frost, one might comment) for their anticipated opposition to the Retained EU Law Bill. I’ll come back to that Bill shortly, but this constant sneering at remainers explains the central problem with a proposal put forward recently by the New Statesman’s Martin Fletcher.
His suggestion is that leading ‘remainers’ should unequivocally drop as unrealistic all calls for a referendum on re-joining for at least a generation, and acknowledge at least the possibility of some benefits of Brexit. Then, Rishi Sunak could offer a broad-based, cross-party commission to explore “practical ways to make Brexit work better by, for example, lowering barriers to trade with the EU, making it easier for British professionals to work on the continent, and facilitating British participation in European science and research programmes”.
Fletcher has been a consistently interesting and acute writer about Brexit, and deserves a more serious and sympathetic hearing than he received, at least on social media, perhaps because of the somewhat provocative title of the piece, “it’s time for remainers to try and make Brexit work”, which of course he is unlikely to have written himself. He is also, in my opinion, right that re-joining the EU is not on the agenda for a generation, an argument also cogently made by David Allen Green this week. It’s of note that although a recent opinion poll found 65% support for another referendum, just 22% supported an immediate vote. Moreover, as I argued in last week’s post, the result of such a referendum can’t be assumed and, in another recent post, re-joining isn’t really viable from an EU perspective until it is clear that a future Tory government wouldn’t seek to reverse it again.
However, Fletcher is unrealistic to think that remainers acknowledging that re-joining isn’t in prospect will open the door to the kind of consensual post-Brexit planning he advocates. That’s clear just from the way Frost and Rees-Mogg disparage erstwhile remainers like Hunt, who has certainly fully accepted Brexit although, like Sunak, has committed the sin of admitting it has some costs. For them, such a consensus could only mean ‘betraying’ Brexit, and even the limited realism of acknowledging any costs is heresy. Nor are they remotely interested in “practical ways to make Brexit work better” which, to them, just means diluting or softening Brexit. And, in a sense, they are right, because the harder Brexit is, the less practical it is, and the more practical it is, the softer it becomes.
This problem is not solved but exacerbated if, as spelt out in Fletcher’s follow-up article, “more extreme figures” on both sides are excluded from the hypothetical Commission. For it is hard to think of a single high-profile Brexiter who would accept the kind of ‘practical solutions’ Fletcher envisages it coming up with. That is precisely why they haven’t been adopted. So the idea that simply excluding them in order to create a rapprochement based on practicalities is, itself, impractical. It certainly wouldn’t put an end to the bitter divisions of Brexit, which is Fletcher’s main, and admirable, aim. It would simply provide a new focus for them.
The idea that remainers should ‘get behind’ or at least ‘move on from’ Brexit isn’t a new one, of course. It has been around in various forms since the referendum. So, too, has the implication that remainer intransigence has precluded a ‘consensual’ approach to Brexit. Yet the reasons why such ideas are both unrealistic and inaccurate have scarcely changed since I first discussed them in October 2016 (that post also accurately predicted that the bitterness of divisions would endure and deepen as Brexit became a reality).
Amongst the reasons discussed in it was the fact that, by then, Theresa May’s conduct had squandered any possibility of a ‘big tent’ process of the sort Fletcher advocates. But that possibility was very small anyway, because of the nature of the Tory Party and of the Brexit Ultras within and outside it. That is even more the case now, and explains why Fletcher’s proposals can already be seen to be unworkable. For what he describes as the path remainers should follow is effectively exactly the position which the Labour Party has adopted (and even the LibDems are not calling for re-joining). Yet that hasn’t prompted Sunak to respond in the way Fletcher suggests it would enable, and it is inconceivable that it will. The reason is obvious. Sunak, or any other Tory leader, would be ripped apart by his own party were he to try it.
The Retained EU Law Bill: pragmatism or ideology?
Many of the difficulties with Fletcher’s proposals are illustrated by the current row within the Tory Party about the Retained EU Law Bill. If passed in its current form, originally devised by Rees-Mogg, it would mean that all such law would automatically lapse by, in the main, the end of 2023, unless explicitly retained in UK law after review, or made subject to a longer sunsetting period. There are several issues at stake here.
Administrative chaos? Very possibly
One, which is purely practical, is the huge administrative burden of reviewing the entirety of retained EU law within this timeframe, and the potential problem of mistakes or oversights leading to massive legal confusion for individuals, businesses, and other bodies.
But such practical objections are derided by Brexiters as ‘remainer’ foot-dragging and anti-Brexit resistance, providing a ready illustration of why the Fletcher proposal is a non-starter. Their insistence that the Bill must be pursued replicates exactly the problem that has dogged Brexit from the outset, with Brexiters repeatedly positioning anything that challenges the ‘simplism’ of their beliefs as sabotage, which explains, in particular, the bitter deterioration of relations between Brexiter politicians and civil servants since 2016.
Indeed Rees-Mogg again (£) provides an example in implicitly referring to civil servants raising the practical problems of the Bill as “whingeing from life’s eternal hand-wringers”. Like Frost, he has learned nothing from the mini-budget which provided a paradigmatic example of the disaster that can follow the side-lining of the civil service, and expertise in general, in favour of Brexiter ‘true belief’.
That same mind-set informs the Brexiters’ Jacobin-like contempt for constitutional convention, most evident in the 2019 Prorogation. That is present in a particularly pernicious aspect of the Bill, namely the extent to which it gives Ministers, rather than Parliament, the power to decide which regulations might be scrapped. That this is pernicious should be as clear to leavers as to remainers, since it continues the Executive power-grab that has been a feature of Brexit, despite its promise to ‘restore parliamentary sovereignty’ (this also, by the way, makes Keir Starmer’s bid to pinch the ‘taking back control’ slogan a smart one).
A key test of Sunak’s much-vaunted pragmatism, and of his political control over the Brexit Ultras in his party, will be whether he proceeds with the Bill and, if so, with its currently planned timeframe. It will also be a test of whether he will continue the ‘Brexity’ disdain for the conventions of parliamentary democracy. There are contradictory rumours about what he intends, but at least he has now ruled out another stupid and impractical plan (£), also devised by Rees-Mogg, to set departmental ‘red tape budgets’.
A bonfire of rights and regulations? Probably not
The other main aspect of the Retained EU Law Bill is not so much practical as ideological. In principle, it could mean whole swathes of EU-derived employment rights, most notably working time regulations including the 48-hour working week, minimum rest periods, and annual paid leave entitlements, being scrapped. The same is possible for environmental standards, including regulation of pollution and of food standards.
However, despite some of the wilder rumours circulating on social media, the passage of the Bill doesn’t in itself mean these diminishments of regulatory protections would happen, because the government could decide to retain the existing regulations, or to extend the sunsetting period before they lapsed. But will that happen? Clearly there are many Brexiters who want these rights to end, and see that as a major benefit of Brexit. It would deliver the ‘Britannia Unchained’ Brexit they yearn for. Equally, there are many who are opposed to Brexit who are convinced that ‘this was what Brexit was about all along’.
But, as always, it is more complicated than that because of the central flaw in Brexit, namely its many different meanings. That flaw has been inherited by the present government because it came to power on a similarly diverse coalition of Brexit-supporting voters. Many of these, and the MPs who represent them, will not support the wholesale scrapping of so many employment and environmental protections.
That situation is compounded by the multiple crises that the government now faces, and its deep unpopularity. It can hardly afford to preside over the potential administrative chaos the Bill will create, and it could hardly give an easier gift to the Labour opposition than to propose to shred workers’ rights and environmental standards.
There’s no cause for complacency, of course, and this is in every respect an indefensible and dangerous piece of legislation. But on the face of it Sunak would be crazy to attempt to use it in this way even if his party, not just in the form of the Red Wall MPs but many of those from the rural heartlands, as well as the House of Lords, would countenance it.
Even Rees-Mogg (£), whilst urging the quick passage of the Bill, does so on the basis that this would neuter the critique that the government has a “secret agenda” to remove these rights and standards in the run-up to the 2024 election. Not that it would entirely do so, since the suspicion would rightly remain that, were the Tories to win again, they would then use ministerial powers to do exactly that. So Rees-Mogg is probably being disingenuous as usual, but the point is that he recognizes that the current Tory government couldn’t get away with it.
Again, then, as so often throughout Brexit, what will happen with the Bill comes down to the schismatic internal politics of the Tory Party. That bleeds through to the other major current Brexit issue, the Northern Ireland Protocol. The two are potentially linked, since denying Brexiters what they call the ‘Brexit Freedoms Bill’ might be more or less difficult depending what they are or are not asked to accept as regards a deal on the Protocol.
The endless Northern Ireland Protocol saga: an end in sight?
There are several signs that such a deal is in the offing, and continued pressure from the United States for something to be achieved by April, for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, under threat of Joe Biden pulling out of a planned visit to the UK. That would be symbolically damaging, and betoken a more general frostiness in UK-US relations, and add to the sense of post-Brexit Britain’s diminished international standing.
One indication of progress that was little commented on, at least outside Northern Ireland, came with the quiet confirmation by a government minister during the holiday period that permanent border facilities will need to be built at Northern Ireland’s ports. It has long been accepted that these will be necessary, even under the UK’s proposals for revising the Protocol, but the failure to actually build them (rather than the temporary facilities) has been regarded by the EU as a sign of UK bad faith. So it is at least a straw in the wind.
More high profile were the comments of Leo Varadkar, now once again the Irish Taoiseach, indicating that both Ireland and the EU saw the possibility of a more flexible implementation of the Protocol, and acknowledging both the concerns of Northern Irish unionists and “mistakes” on all sides in the construction of the original Protocol.
It’s important to understand that there isn’t anything in this which is new in substance. It certainly doesn’t imply an acceptance of the hard-line Brexiter and Unionist positions whereby there is no role for the ECJ and no difference at all between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in their goods trading relationships with the EU. To do so would be to entirely destroy the Protocol and the EU could never agree to that, a point implicitly made by the German Foreign Minister this week in her reference to finding a pragmatic solution “on the basis of existing agreements”.
But Varadkar’s comments do have a political significance. I read it as part of an attempt to give both the UK government and Unionists a ‘ladder to climb down’, so as to be able to claim substantial ‘concessions’ from the EU, even if these turn out to be little more than what has been on offer for many months. Will that happen? Before Christmas, Charles Grant, the well-connected and well-informed Director of the Centre for European Reform, wrote an intriguing Twitter thread suggesting it might.
Continuing DUP opposition is likely to be ignored, his sources suggest, although an equally credible report from the Financial Times this week (£) suggests that DUP support is a primary consideration for the UK government. Personally, I think Grant’s account is more plausible, given recent history. For the DUP itself, the dynamic is somewhat similar to that faced by Sunak. If they oppose a Protocol deal by refusing to participate in the power-sharing institutions they will continue to add a Brexit crisis to all the other crises in Northern Ireland, especially that of the NHS. If they don’t, they face the wrath of even more extreme unionists parties, their equivalent of the ERG. For now, there is just a hint, following Varadkar’s statement, that they may be amenable to compromise though, if so, it will probably come with, literally, a price tag for the Westminster government.
On the key UK political issue of ERG opposition, Grant reports that senior sources anticipate that this won’t be a problem if the deal is supported by Chris Heaton-Harris and Steve Baker (both former ERG Chairs, and, now, NI Secretary and Minister, respectively), and this analysis is similar to the FT’s. I imagine that is true, though it bears saying in passing that it shows just how dysfunctional British politics has become that an issue with such massive repercussions, not just for Northern Ireland but for UK foreign policy and international reputation, should come down to what two extreme ideologues will accept.
But how likely is it that they will stay in line? That does not seem to me to be at all obvious, especially as regards Baker, who is a true Brexit fanatic. It’s easy to see him resigning again, like so many other Brexiters when confronted with the realities behind their fantasies. There is an additional question of whether, even if these two, and the ERG as a whole, accept a deal, they will regard it as permanently settled. After all, they supported the original Protocol before almost immediately insisting that it be re-written.
For Sunak, if he can get a deal by his party, the prize is clear. Resolving the running sore resulting from Boris Johnson’s irresponsible and dishonest conduct over the Protocol would be an achievement in itself, and would ease tensions with both the EU and the US. Perhaps more importantly, it would avoid an escalating conflict with the EU at a time when his government is beset with so many other crises. It would also deprive Labour of a major chunk of its minimalist post-Brexit policy offering to the electorate, that of resolving the Protocol.
Most of the political dynamics of this have been the same since the first rumblings, in early 2021, that the UK would renege on the Protocol. But for Sunak there is at least one significant difference. Lurking in the background is Boris Johnson with, reportedly, ambitions to regain the premiership (£). It seems an absurdity, but then post-Brexit Britain is absurd. It’s certainly further evidence of Johnson’s grotesque ego and malign influence.
Be that as it may, it would clearly be to Johnson’s advantage to agitate against any deal on the Protocol, and any retreat on the EU Retained Law Bill, as ‘betrayals of Brexit’. Of course, both would be in the national interest, but it would hardly be excessively cynical to say that this would not weigh heavily as a factor in Johnson’s mind, nor especially uncharitable to suspect it would not even occur to him that it was a factor to be considered at all.
And so we limp on into another year of Brexit, the evidence of its failure and unpopularity mounting, but our politics too dysfunctional to admit, still less to address, that failure.
Amongst David Frost’s many ludicrous characteristics is his pompous belief that he is some kind of political philosopher. It is all the more ludicrous since his sole and invariable point of reference is the Eighteenth Century ultra-Conservative Edmund Burke, from whom Frost derives the fatuous notion of sovereignty that did so much damage in his negotiation of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. And Frost is not alone: the same cartoonish concept of sovereignty informs the current push from some Brexiter commentators (£) for an extreme, maximalist, approach to the use of the powers proposed by the Retained EU Law Bill.
In his latest column, Frost quotes Burke at length, declaiming that:
“The words of the great Tory political philosopher Edmund Burke from 1775 ring all too uncomfortably true today:
‘A nation may slide down fair and softly from the highest point of grandeur and prosperity to the lowest state of imbecility and meanness, without anyone marking a particular period in this declension; without asking a question about it, or in the least speculating on any of the innumerable acts which have stolen in this silent and insensible revolution. Every event so prepares the subsequent, that when it arrives, it produces no surprise nor any extraordinary alarm. I am certain that if pains, and great and immediate pains, are not taken to prevent it, such must be the fate of this Country.’”
It evidently does not occur to Frost that anyone paying attention has marked “a particular period in this declension” of the nation. It began on 23 June 2016. And endless questions have been raised about the “acts which have stolen in this silent and insensible revolution”, of which the most pressing is how on earth do we escape this godawful mess that Frost and his many cronies have inflicted upon this country.
Michael Fletcher’s articles include the plaintive lament that “we can’t carry on like this indefinitely, with the two halves of the country pulling in completely opposite directions and scarcely talking to each other”. I sense and can identify with the despair and distress that lies behind those words. And perhaps – hopefully – it is true that it can’t continue indefinitely, but, for the time being, we will have to live with it. The key to ending the impasse is, alas, held, as it always has been, by Brexiters like Frost.
Please note that there will be no post next Friday, so I expect the next one to be on 20 January 2023.
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